A small group of Iraqi refugees has quietly arrived in Minnesota, beneficiaries of a new government initiative to find permanent homes for Iraqis exiled because of the war.
Last week, Johny and Joumana Isho landed at the Twin Cities airport with a baby in their arms and hope in their hearts. They followed in the footsteps of at least five other Iraqis who have resettled here in recent months.
The young couple are among the roughly 7,000 Iraqis admitted into the United States since October, up from just 1,600 during the previous 12 months, as the United States tries to blunt criticism that it's not doing enough to help the 2 million Iraqis forced to leave their country because of the war. Washington has pledged to approve 12,000 new Iraqi settlers by the end of the fiscal year in September.
"When my wife and I learned we were accepted into the United States, we just cried and cried with happiness,'' said Johny Isho, 32, a businessman who had fled Iraq into Lebanon with his family in 2005.
"I wish the United States could take more refugees, especially more Christians. We are suffering.''
The chaos of the war made life particularly dangerous for Iraqis such as the Ishos, part of a Christian minority that has been subject to kidnappings, death threats and forced exile from their homes, said Lavinia Limon, president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Likewise Iraqis who cooperated with the U.S. military or U.S. businesses have been targeted by anti-American extremists, she said.
That included the Ishos, who shared their stories this week as they relaxed on the carpeted floor of their unfurnished apartment in Fridley.
Although the Ishos appeared healthy and happy, the long scar across Johny's throat underscored the reason they are here.
The couple said they were living in Baghdad when tensions erupted, as Muslim extremists began taking the law into their own hands. Joumana Isho, 35, said she worked for a U.S.-controlled bank and her husband worked in a business that served many Western clients.
"One night about 10 o'clock I got a phone call at home, from someone trying to get information on what's going on at the bank,'' she recalled through an interpreter. "The caller said, 'We know you work for the Americans. If you'd don't quit your job, you're dead.' ''
About the same time, Johny -- who earlier had his throat slit during a robbery he said was motivated because he is a Christian -- was shot at as he drove through the streets of Baghdad. Other members of his family also were threatened, he said.
"You felt so much pressure, like you were being squeezed,'' he said.
When the fear became too much to bear, they hired a driver and a Jeep, packed up a few belongings and left all that they had known. Eventually they settled in a Christian section of Beirut.
But refugees could not work legally in Lebanon or most other countries where they now live. So Johny said he worked odd jobs as a painter or butcher to try to feed his wife and new baby.
"We barely had enough to live,'' he said.
One morning in March, Joumana answered the phone. Her heart pounded as the caller spoke. The United States had approved her family's application for refugee status.
"I called my husband at work and told him, 'Come home!' '' she said.
"I thought finally we'd have someplace to settle in peace and build a future for my family,'' Johny said.
Working with the International Institute of Minnesota based in St. Paul, the couple flew to Minnesota, where Johny's uncle and their sponsor, Tony Odish, eagerly awaited them. He had found them an apartment, stocked the refrigerator and bought them some clothes.
Sitting in that apartment last week, the couple said they knew the quality of life would be high in the United States. But they still marveled at the wide freeways, the big houses and even their own new home.
As they put down roots in Minnesota, their priorities are to learn English and find jobs, they said.
Johny plans to help his uncle at his retail business, and Joumana hopes to eventually work as a hair stylist. The International Institute will help them gain employment skills, as well as provide other services to smooth their transition.
"I feel so good,'' said Odish, playing with his 10-month-old nephew. "I hope they can learn from me to help other people.''
Odish, who fled Iraq more than a decade ago after being tortured under the regime of Saddam Hussein, said he plans to sponsor other family members.
Such refugees will join a small community of Iraqis in Minnesota; the 2000 census showed their numbers at roughly 500, most of them immigrants who came to Minnesota during the 1990s.
While the Twin Cities area is not now a major destination for the new wave of Iraqis, Minnesota could play a growing role in the future, said John Borden, executive director of the International Institute.
"It all depends on where their sponsors live,'' said Borden. "Right now, there aren't a lot of Iraqis living in Minnesota. But the numbers could change. Refugees often move to other cities after they get to the United States.''
Jean Hopfensperger • 651-298-1553